US cannot win by ignoring rules of war
The full facts surrounding the killing of a wounded and apparently helpless Iraqi insurgent by a US marine are not yet known. But the video evidence is powerful - and disturbing.
Graphic television footage broadcast this week seems to show the marine shooting the injured fighter dead from almost point-blank range. There was no indication that the victim was either wounded or offering any resistance.
If these facts are supported by an investigation that is now under way, then there will be no doubt that a serious war crime has been committed. Put bluntly, this would amount to murder.
Fellow marines have been quick to spring to the defence of their comrade. They have pointed out that this killing occurred in the midst of a fierce and ugly conflict in which hundreds of people have lost their lives.
The soldier responsible was in a highly stressful position, having only just returned from duty after being shot in the cheek. And the previous day a member of his unit had been killed when dealing with a booby-trapped dead body.
It is easy to understand the enormous pressure under which these battle-weary marines are operating.
But the laws of war are clear. An enemy combatant who is wounded and offering no resistance is to be treated humanely. Killing people who find themselves in this vulnerable position is forbidden.
And whatever the legal position, from the purely moral perspective it should be obvious that killing someone in the circumstances portrayed in the video is abhorrent, offensive and just plain wrong.
The inquiry will look into whether the marine thought the victim was armed and therefore acted in self-defence. This would be a mitigating factor.
The inquiry should be conducted quickly, thoroughly and transparently. But whatever the result, severe damage has already been done to the US cause. The footage has angered ordinary Iraqis and will no doubt help swell the ranks of the insurgents. It provides the world with further evidence that the US has lost its moral authority.
The spotlight is now on one soldier who was unfortunate enough to have his actions caught on camera. But the ultimate responsibility lies much higher up the chain of command.
Since the 'war on terror' began, the Bush administration has played fast and loose with international law. As early as 2001, a White House legal adviser was ridiculing the Geneva Conventions, which set out the laws of war. Since then, the US has flouted them repeatedly - from the unlawful detentions in Guantanamo Bay to the appalling torture and humiliation of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison.
Further concerns have been raised in the light of the attack on Fallujah, especially the treatment of civilians caught up in this grim urban battle.
War is, by its nature, a dreadful business. That is precisely why the United Nations refused to sanction the invasion of Iraq without adequate justification.
The US is now facing an enemy that does not believe in playing by the rules. The car bombings, assassinations and brutal murders of hostages do not fit into any military code. And there are also reports that insurgents in Fallujah have used the white flag of surrender to lure US soldiers into a deadly trap.
This is repellant and it makes the tough tasks facing the US forces that much tougher. But the problems have arisen from the invasion and occupation of Iraq - both of which were justified by the US on moral grounds. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the US forces are seen to strictly observe the laws of war. Every time these rules are breached, the battle for hearts and minds becomes even harder to win.
The aim of the Geneva Conventions is not to favour either side. It is simply to reduce the suffering of those not taking part in the conflict. And that includes wounded insurgents who find themselves at the mercy of US marines.